STONEMOUTH is an impregnable bastion of toughness, perched on slit-eyed, wind-whipped coastal Aberdeenshire, breathing in haar, its bleak suspension bridge a lure for serial suicides, while the townsfolk dabble in drug taking, booze and crime.
No wonder Stewart Gilmour, the story’s narrator, chose to escape to the glitz of London, making good at 25 as a junior partner with an international architectural lighting firm.
Poised on the suicide bridge, Stewart heralds his brief return with “coming back here might be a dangerous thing to do”. It’s the story’s first hook. We are soon aware that Stewart didn’t leave – he was chased into exile to save his skin from the infamous gangster family, the Murstons.
The head of the “clan” is aptly named Don, whose father old Joe is about to be buried. Stewart’s return for the funeral is by special dispensation. His relationships with the Murstons—four sons and two daughters, Ellie and Grier, as well as the parents—is a thicket of thorns. It had once been all roses.
The story of the nurturing of Stewart’s bond with the criminal Murstons, and of his nexus of smalltown friendships – including connection with the MacAvetts, the rival hard men – is told with almost sadistic stealth by Iain Banks, whose 26th novel combines verve with the palpable pleasure of a writer sucked into a story which has complexity, ease and poise. Its skein of events appears to unfold with deceptive simplicity, even grace.
At the heart of the gradually menacing drama lies romance, a thing of tenderness and devotion, that blooms between Ellie, the elder Murston girl, and Stewart. Told in retrospect, it has tragedy looming over it, and, whilst Banks deals his cards face down, it is clear that the cause of Stewart’s forced exile stems from him breaking the Murstons’ trust and Ellie’s love.
As ever with Banks, there are nuanced questions, no simple equations of cause and effect. Was Stewart the sole agent of his own downfall? Did the involvement of a MacAvett in the mix simply sharpen the hurt of his misdemeanour, ensuring an exit with no return?
Yet, here he is, and despite the Murston brothers’ threats, it seems ordained that Stewart and Ellie must resolve their unfinished business. Banks leaves the future in the wings, and writes in the moment. Often his dialogue is primed with show-offish wit and glancing literary allusions, which could be irksome, but the references are unfailingly entertaining.
Whilst the plot is clearly programmed to reach a predictable conclusion, nonetheless, thanks to a depth born out of a truly engaging story of a love that is pushed to the brink extinction, it satisfies.
This is Banks at his waspish, intelligent, nuanced best. His fans will give thanks. «